By sheer chance I have recently stumbled across a street named Calle de los Irlandéses (Irish Street) located in one of Madrid’s oldest neighbourhoods known as La Latina. However perhaps my use of the term “street” may be quite an inaccurate exaggeration as that which I wandered by certainly seemed more like a back alley than anything remotely suggestive of a city thoroughfare. In fact if truth were told my first encounter with Calle de los Irlandeses was late at night and all I could see down the dark backstreet were four people relieving their bladders among overflowing refuse bins that stank in the summer heat.
Friends with me at the time of my finding described the lane as “short”, “small” but “somehow charming in its grotty state”. Having said that, despite the inglorious character of this new discovery my curiosity was still ignited by the simple fact that a lane in the historic Austrian Madrid should carry the name of my fellow countrymen. No doubt if I had found the street in one of Madrid’s new, regrettably soulless urbanizaciones I wouldn’t have given the name a second thought and quickly put the choice of title down to some nostalgic town hall bureaucrat who studied English in 1980´s Ireland. However given the fact that the street is situated in a corner of the city which witnessed centuries of Spanish history take place on its stubborn cobbles, I was convinced that a good reason lay behind the choice of letters on the street sign.
It stood to reason that in order to learn about Calle de los Irlandéses I was first going to have to read up on the neighbourhood itself that to my surprise few friends knew much about. I consequently gathered that for most people La Latina is truly nothing more than a picturesque surrounding for Sunday afternoon beers after a stroll through Madrid’s famous flea market. What is not commonly known however is that the vicinity in question was curiously named after Beatriz Galindo, the private Latin teacher of Queen Isabella Catolíca in the late 15th century. However far from being a mere royal tutor she was also professor of Latin in the prestigious Salamanca University, thus making her perhaps the first woman in world history to become a University Academic. Furthermore in addition to all of the above the crown’s Latin expert is also attributed with the then groundbreaking idea of founding a local hospital (on the site today’s of La Latina Theatre) that catered for the poor and was funded by the wealthy. Still and all despite such a colourful curriculum Beatriz Galindo is most known for the fact that she became the closest friend of a female monarch starved of educated female company. Thus it was that long before La Latina was ever the name of a Madrid borough it was the nickname of the Queen’s beloved confidante and educator.
Finally returning to my original quest for the source of a street name I saw on the La Latina parish website that Calle de los Irlandéses lies in what was once the Jewish and Moorish quarter of Madrid in a time when the sons of Abraham lived together in peace. The webpage also states that Irish Street was named “in memory of all Irish Catholics – both clergy and congregation - persecuted by Queen Elizabeth of England and her descendants”. Strangely however while the website could tell me that much with such certainty it was still unable to state the year or even the monarch who ordered that it be so. As you might guess I therefore remained naturally doubtful of the veracity of such a theory.
In the end having been failed by Internet, church and bookstores I unexpectedly got to the bottom of the riddle in a chance conversation with my local barman, Luis. To my absolute surprise having already chatted to him about the subject on a previous occasion, Luis had been waiting for me to drop in again so that he could proudly impart to me the following results of his research……
The use of official street names in Madrid is in relative terms a considerably new practise. Indeed for many years city streets were associated with a distinguishing landmark or of course the predominant trade of the street. For this very reason therefore Calle de los Irlandéses did not have a previous official title but was instead referred to rather as “the street of the Church of San Gregorio" (Calle de la Iglesia de Gregorio). The said chapel was built in the 15th Century in order to serve the nuns of the next-door “Convento de San Gregorio” from which the church took its name. In time the aforementioned convent opened a school in the 17th century for the children of Irish families living in the city. The institutution (Colegio de los Irlandéses) became well known and it was not long before the church was suitably renamed La Iglesia de San Patricio de los Irlandéses (The Church of Saint Patrick of the Irish). Unfortunately however the chapel is no longer standing as it was one of hundreds to be raised in reprisals by Napoleonic troops in 1808. However while the church and convent have disappeared the resulting street name has survived for well over 200 years.
On that account I have eventually uncovered the background to the ceramic name plaque that appropriately features the golden harp against a navy background. It really is a great shame that the church and convent no longer grace the street with their presence as all that can now be found is a lane that seves as a back access to the insignificant properties addressed on other streets. Having said that, my being the wiser as regards the bygone days of Irish Street has typically done nothing to satisfy my curiosity. In fact it is quite the contrary. I am now more intrigued than ever to know who were the Irish folk who settled in Madrid in the 1700´s and who were numerous enough to warrant a school being set aside for their children. The mystery continues.